Nobel Prize honours work that benefits humankind; parochial focus on winners' national identity is contrary to its spirit

  • Everyone understands that Prof Banerjee is of Indian origin, and that he is a Bengali from Kolkata like Amartya Sen, the first Indian and Bengali to win the award

  • The fact of this world that we inhabit is that there are nation-states, and linguistic, racial and religious identities do dominate politics in much of the world.

  • Basking in the reflected glory of others of a similar ethnic or national background has to be seen in this light.

  • Those without their own glory to bask in (inevitably the vast majority) may find special solace in basking in the glory of others.

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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An economist of Indian origin is one of the three winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. Abhijeet Banerjee, who is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has won the recognition with Esther Duflo, his MIT colleague and wife, and Michael Kremer, a Harvard University professor, for their “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”.

The details of their work are obviously beyond the capacity of the average layman to understand, because this is work at the highest level in a field that requires a great deal of specialist knowledge. Appreciating their work on its merits is therefore hard for most people.

However, everyone can understand that Prof Banerjee is of Indian origin, and that he is a Bengali from Kolkata like Amartya Sen, the first Indian and Bengali to win the award. The Kolkata papers and channels, especially those in the Bengali language, have quite naturally focused on his links with the city and his education at Presidency College and Jawaharlal Nehru University. The fact that Sen was also a product of Presidency has been a matter of pride for the college and its alumni.

Two other Nobel laureates, Rabindranath Tagore and Mother Teresa, had a long association with Kolkata. Two more, Ronald Ross, who won the Nobel for Medicine in 1902, and CV Raman, who won the award for Physics in 1930, did the works for which they were awarded in Kolkata. Banerjee’s prize has therefore been a moment of great crowing by Bengalis about Kolkata and Bengal, to the embarrassment of many Bengali bhadraloks, who consider such parochial behaviour to be infra dig.

 Nobel Prize honours work that benefits humankind; parochial focus on winners national identity is contrary to its spirit

Esther Duflo, left, and Abhijit Banerjee stand together following a news conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on Monday, 14 October 2019. Banerjee and Duflo, along with Harvard's Michael Kremer, were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics for pioneering new ways to alleviate global poverty. AP Photo

Why is a Nobel Prize awarded in the first place? The answer is fairly straightforward. Alfred Nobel, after whom the prize is named, had in his will left a large portion of his assets to those whose work in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and peace, “conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. These prizes were first awarded in 1901. The Economics prize was instituted later by the Bank of Sweden in 1968. Nobel, in his will, had written, “It is my express wish that when awarding the prizes, no consideration be given to nationality, but that the prize be awarded to the worthiest person”.

To reduce Nobel winners, whose works are awarded for the benefit of humankind without consideration of nationality, to their linguistic and national identities, is therefore indeed parochial. The same is true for global champions in other fields too. For instance, the Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge’s incredible feat of running a full marathon of 42 kilometres in just under two hours, thus becoming the first human being to do so, is an achievement of the human species.

Kipchoge is not only a Kenyan. And yet…Kipchoge is also a Kenyan. The fact of this world that we inhabit is that there are nation-states, and linguistic, racial and religious identities do dominate politics in much of the world. The nation-state is an inter-subjective reality, in the same way as money is an inter-subjective reality. Neither nation-state nor money has any reality beyond our shared imaginations. They exist because we believe in them. Anyone who finds himself or herself in a foreign country with no local currency, no functioning card, and no way to exchange money will realise this reality very quickly. You may have a lakh rupees in your pocket or handbag, but if they believe in pesos or dollars then your rupees are just useless bits of coloured paper.

Nonetheless, for all their eventually imaginary character, nation-states and money are also the hardest of hard realities in our lives. Global poverty, for work on which Banerjee et al won their Nobel, is a harsh fact for millions of people — people who lack enough of those coloured bits of paper. Majoritarian nationalism, which has swept over the world in a political wave, is madness over imagined identities, but also as real as armies and detention camps.

Basking in the reflected glory of others of a similar ethnic or national background has to be seen in this light. Those without their own glory to bask in — inevitably the vast majority — may find special solace in basking in the glory of others.

In an ideal world, we would all watch Carl Sagan’s video of the earth as a pale blue dot, nod our heads and acknowledge the shared humanity of all peoples, and drop our parochial linguistic, religious and national identities. In the world we actually live in, to do so would probably be suicidal, because those less philosophical and urbane than us can be expected to band together in large groups on the basis of their national, religious or linguistic identities, and — basking in the imagined glories of mythical or long-dead ancestors — proceed to take over the world, as indeed they already have. Bhadraloks and their equivalents in other communities would unfortunately be driven to extinction, which is the fate of all species that fail to adapt to the environment.

The human world of politics and economics, or power and money, is Darwinian in character, a place of grit and grime, sleaze and slime. Perhaps this is why Bengali bhadraloks win Nobels in Economics, but fail to achieve much in politics or business at the national or global levels. Indeed, even in state politics in West Bengal, there are hardly any Bengali bhadraloks of note. They don’t like to get their hands dirty; it is below them.

The Bengali bhadralok’s aversion to the uncivil nature of our shared inter-subjective reality is something that a great bhadralok and son of Kolkata, Satyajit Ray, depicted beautifully in one of his films. It is called Jana Aranya, titled “The Middleman” in English. Among its principal characters is Bishu, a refugee from East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) played by the great Utpal Dutt. In a telling scene, Dutt, who is no bhadralok, nudges the film’s main protagonist, Somnath (Pradip Mukherjee), a young unemployed graduate looking for a job, to go into business. Somnath says he has no capital. “How much capital do you think that peanut seller has?” Bishu replies. Somnath is offended. “Are you asking me to sell peanuts?” he says. “No-no, how can I, you are a son of a Brahmin,” Bishu replies. “You can stand on the street and beg, but how can you cut a deal?”

Some Bengali bhadraloks of Right-wing bent, politically and economically, appear to have overcome their aversion to what the most powerful man in the world at present, Donald Trump, would call “the art of the deal”. Others, of liberal and Leftist persuasions, are probably yet to wrap their high-minded heads around the fact that they may be theoretically right in turning their noses up at all that is unedifying in politics and business. The practical outcome is that those less scrupulous and more bloody-minded will rule over them, as they have for years, and perhaps put to an end everything that they hold dear.

In the cosmic perspective of things, of course, it doesn’t matter anymore than someone winning a Nobel.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Oct 17, 2019 10:09:33 IST